Discovering the beauty of Krakow
Krakow is one of the most visited cities in Central Europe and I personally have been here several times for its location, food, drinks, culture and of course the history. Most visitors come here because the drinks are so cheap and the nightlife is great but for me it has to be the history. When I am talking about the former capital of Poland to people back home, I always say visitors should allow at least four to five days to explore the city and also the few day trips on offer nearby. If into hiking, the Tatra mountains located a two hour journey south at the resort of Zakopane is worth hitting up as well and will need a few extra days. This area of Poland is one of my favourites and I love returning here on every visit. Here is my guide for first timers and please if you have any questions about Krakow, then please leave a comment.
First off I will start with the sights to see. Krakow has many things to see and are mostly located in the Old Town. I will start with this before writing about the sights on the outskirts. Also here in the Old Town is where many hotels and hostels are located and Krakow has a lot of rooms on offer and if researching correctly, there is a bargain to be had.
The Old Town
The starting point (and a fantastic meeting place) has to be the main market square (Rynek Glowny) with its Cloth Hall in the heart of it all with the beautiful City Hall Tower and Church of St Mary overlooking the cobble street-stones, restaurants, bars and cafes. This is also the most photographic area of the city so make sure the camera battery is charged up. I start with the Cloth Hall which is a beautiful Renaissance building which replaced the former Cloth Hall here which had a horrible Gothic design. The upper floor houses one part of the National Museum (which I can’t write about as I never went in) but below on the ground level is a row of market stalls selling clothes, souvenirs and food. Below the Cloth Hall is a museum (which I did check out) is the Rynek Underground Museum, where remains of buildings and historical objects have been found and are now on display down here with some fantastic interactive displays. However as it is a small museum, tickets need to be reserved online.
Next to the Cloth Hall is the City Hall Tower, Gothic in design and is the only remaining part of the former City Hall which stands. For a small fee visitors can climb the narrow staircase and check out some of the amazing views over the Market Square. A great place to look directly across at the church on the other side of the square.
One of the most beautiful churches in Krakow (and possibly Poland) is the Church of Saint Mary (Kosciol Mariacki) and was built between the 13th-16th century by the locals who wanted to rival the Royal Cathedral near the castle (more on that later on). The main feature is the two towers to which one has the a story. The taller one known as the Hejnal Tower has a famous trumpet call and is sounded hourly from the tower. The call is unfinished because this is in memory of a medieval trumpeter who was shot whilst surrounding the alarm. When visiting the church, just stand outside the main entrance just before the hour market and listen to this beautiful trumpet call. Also the call which is done at noon is also broadcasted live on Polish radio.
On the outskirts of the old town is the Barbican (similar to that of the one in Warsaw) and is one of the remaining parts of the medieval fortifications. Wondering why most of the beautiful buildings and medieval fortifications remain? Just in short, Adolf Hitler and his German friends during the Nazi German occupation of Poland actually liked Krakow for its grandeur, splendid buildings and tried not to destroy the city. OK, some buildings got destroyed but most remained (whilst Warsaw just got completely flattened by the looks of it). Another building to see some amazing medieval fortifications is the Florian Gate located on Ulica Florianska. Loving the stone work on this building.
Walking south eastwards away from the Market Square and down a few streets (passing many churches), is the Wawel, a citadel built on a hill which has a series of buildings including the castle and cathedral. The area was once the site of coronations and royal burials and the Gothic looking cathedral is regarded by locals as a spiritual shrine. Surrounded by fortifications (which have been replaced and strengthened several times since the medieval times to the 20th century), walking around the grounds gave me the peaceful feeling, a calm feeling and relaxing feel as I took in the architecture, the greenery of the grass and the surrounding views. This is one of my favourite parts of the city, as it is not as touristy as the centre of the old town.
From the top of the Wawel, visitors can walk (after paying a small fee) down inside the hill to a enclave of caves at the bottom which comes out near the river. Known as the Dragon’s Den (Smocza Jama) there is a story behind this place. The village (which it was back then many moons ago) ran out of virgins (shock horror!) and the King promised the hand of his only daughter to whoever could kill the dragon nearby (did Dragons really exist in Poland?) Many men took on the challenge but either got killed by its claws or burnt alive by its smoky breath until a poor cobbler named Krak somehow tricked the Dragon (whose name is Smok by the way) into eating a sheep which was stuffed full of sulphur which ignited inside his stomach. The dragon ran to the nearby river and drank half of the water until he exploded. The village was saved, Krak married the princess and became King, built a castle on the dragon’s den and the locals built a city around it named ‘Krakow’ – after the king and that is also how the city got it’s name. Visitors who want to visit the den should leave this to last whilst visiting the Wawel as its goes down to the ground level and can’t come up the other way.
When leaving the den, nearby is a monument to Dzok (Jock in English) the dog. He was a happy puppy until one day back in 1990 he was left orphaned. A terrible tragedy had happened when his owner had a heart attack in his car on a nearby roundabout. The puppy was left behind whilst his master was taken away in an ambulance. Dzok waited and waited for his master to return for a YEAR before finally going to live with a kind old lady who used to come and feed him every day whilst he wait. More bad luck came for Dzok in the late 1990s when the old lady died and he was orphaned again but this time taken to a dog hostel, where he escaped on his second day of his stay and was run over by a train. I felt really sad when researching the story behind this dog and is not a happy story to tell but everytime I come to Krakow, I pay my respects to Dzok and remember that all animals are part of this world and that we should look after each other (unless it’s a Great White Shark which decides to eat me then I pull its teeth out, right?). Back to the statue which was unveiled back in 2001 and is close to where his original owner died with an inscription reading ‘Most faithful canine friend ever and a symbol of a dog’s boundless devotion to his master’. The sculptor (who also designed and is to blame for the Wawel Dragon nearby) has put a collection box in the back of the dog which goes and helps orphaned animals in the city.
Outside the Old Town
One of the top places to visit has to be the Jewish Quarter with its old Synagogue and cemetery as well as its restaurants and cafes. I didn’t get much time here but I had a great time walking around and taking photos. I am not going to deluch into the history of the area but if visitors know their Second World War history then this area was under attack by the Nazi Germans quite a lot and prisoners taken away to the nearby Auschwitz death camps.
On of my favourite areas (but also very depressing at the same time) has to the Soviet style buildings in the area known as Nowa Huta. After the Second World War it was time to rebuild most of Poland and under a communist government, the buildings built were grey, horrible designs which carries a lot of doom and gloom to the place. Nowa Huta was an experiment and is totally different to the rest of Krakow. I didn’t see any tourists here (as well as Gothic churches with Gargoyles on them or colourful cafes full of people inside them), there was nobody. The people who live here carry on with their daily lives and there is nothing to see here. Unless visitors are into their cold war history in Europe like I am. This settlement is one of only two entirely pre-planned socialist realist cities ever built (for those who want to know, the other one being in some god-forsaken town called Magnitogorsk in Russia).
The settlement took in a lot of agricultural land when it was built (and also built on top of an ancient village in the progress) and was paid for by the lovely people over the border in the former Soviet Union. Built for 100,000 people, the settlement was built in no time and was built to impress people from outside Krakow. Walking around I noticed tree-lined avenues, lakes, parks and if I say so, a beautiful church. Researching into the area, planning was down to a fine line whilst building the area. The wide streets would prevent fire spreading to buildings across the streets, the layout of the buildings could easily be turned into a fortress if the city came under an attack and the weirdest one for me, the amount of trees (according to the planners) could easily soak up a nuclear blast. Nowa Huta can be reached by tram and is about twenty minutes away from the Old Town (depending on the traffic).
Day Trips from Krakow
Krakow is a good place to be based to do day trips or to go onto other places in the region.
Auschwitz – I always recommend a visit to the former death camps located in Oswiecim which were used in the Second World War and to pay respects to those who lost their lives. There are tour groups in Krakow which will take visitors to the Auschwitz I and II camps for a day trip or can be done without them but the journey by either bus or train does take a while. Read about my experiences of the camps HERE. (Blog will be published soon).
Wieliczka Salt Mines – located not very far from Krakow is the ancient salt mines which a part of has opened up to visitors. Not just any old salt mines, workers in bygone days has made sculptures down here made out of salt, the highlight being the Underground Chapel of St Kinga and it’s amazing fine artwork down there. (My blog on this will be published shortly).
Hiking in the Tatras and town of Zakopane – this is not an ideal place for a day trip as a few days is needed. The town of Zakopane is great for stocking up with food, using it as a base to do day hikes and also the gateway to hiking in the amazing Tatra Mountains, the highlights being the beautiful lakes of Morskie Oko and the highest mountain in the region, Rysy.